On Monday afternoon, Italian premier Mario Monti and Russian president Vladimir Putin convened a small press conference in the slanting, gold light coming off the Black Sea. They had just met to discuss the European economic crisis as well as energy (Italy is Russia’s second biggest gas client), but they also touched on the deepening conflict in Syria.
“We do not want the situation to develop along the lines of a bloody civil war and for it to continue for who knows how many years, like in Afghanistan,” Putin said, standing with his perfect posture in a slate-gray summer suit. “We want there to be peace.” Russia does not want to see the establishment and the opposition to simply switch sides and keep fighting, Putin went on. Russia’s position remains unchanged, commented the reporter of Channel One, the country’s biggest (and state controlled) television channel. “The only way out of the crisis is through negotiations.”
The insistent, demonstrative reasonableness of Putin’s quote was more than bluster; it was also a reflection of how most Russians, including the Russian press, understand their country’s role in Syria’s ongoing civil war.
If the West has come to see Russia as the ornery spoiler in Syria, as the last ally of the cruel and increasingly embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia sees itself as the last sane person left in the room, the one geopolitical actor able to put emotion and cliché aside in favor of rational, balanced thought. Glancing at Russian press coverage of the Syrian conflict—and it is, in the Russian perspective a “crisis”—one will notice that it does not get nearly the same kind of coverage here as it does in the Western press. “Why does this peripheral country get so much attention?” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in World Affairs exclaimed when we spoke. “It just is not considered something extremely significant here.”
The Western observer tends to split the Russian press into two camps: evil statists and martyrs. But for their part, members of the Russian press are convinced of their superiority over their Western colleagues, at least when it comes to Syria. Russian journalists aren’t under the illusion that they are more objective than their Western counterparts, but they are convinced of their ability to convey a more realistic, complex picture of the events in Syria.
“The essence of the conflict is portrayed differently here than in the West,” explains Lukyanov. “Here, it is not a picture of peace-loving freedom fighters against a secretive, repressive regime. The Western picture is highly ideological and primitive. They have a template that’s used for all countries, even though, when it comes to these revolutions in the Arab world, each country is more complex than the previous one. The situation in Syria is much more tangled.” And though you can find a great variety of views on Syria in Russia—anything from the conspirological view that America is arming the rebels and ginned up the uprising to begin with, to the pro-Western, liberal chagrin that Russia is once again backing the bad guys—you would be hard-pressed to find a news outlet that uses the term “Arab Spring.”
In large part, this is because the Russian point of view starts with the naiveté of the Western point of view, and its corollary: That Russians alone can glimpse the ugly truths that run the world. “The Russian press is more accurate than the Western press, because the West, in painting [the Free Syrian Army] as freedom fighters, doesn’t understand that these guys, are blood-sucking vampires and if they come to power there will be hell to pay, and for the Americans, too,” says Maxim Yusin, the deputy editor of the foreign affairs section of the daily newspaper Kommersant, Russia’s largest and among its more liberal. (I should note that, in my three years reporting on Russia and befriending local colleagues, I’ve only ever previously heard the opposite: a refrain about the superiority of American journalism to the unprofessionalism of the still young Russian press.)
“The Americans came to terms with the Arab Spring because they think that this is something they can understand, that democracy works the same way in America as it does in the Arab world,” Yusin goes on. “But it’s not how democracy works in the Arab world,” he says, pointing out that, in Gaza, a democratic election brought Hamas to power. “Russians understand it better,” Yusin explains. “They understand that this is a conflict between the civilized world and the suicide bombers who cry ‘Allahu akbar!’”
Russians are happy to dish out this kind of straight talk, sweeping cultural sensitivities aside, because they consider such constructs to be artificial and twee—and therefore dangerous. In the Russian mind, geopolitics are a hard and serious business; they are not a proper venue for American idealism and, unfortunately, there are many bungled Western interventions to back the Russians up. “Many analysts are surprised that the West is supporting Islamist uprisings against secular regimes,” says Lukyanov. “What’s the end game? Tunisia, Egypt, Libya show that the Islamists win. In Russia, this causes alarm. The more Islamists there are in the Middle East, the more there will be in the Northern Caucasus,” he explained referring to the mountainous region in Russia’s south, which has been crippled by two Chechen wars and a ruinous and bloody Islamic insurgency for years. And so, while the New York Times wrung its hands over whether or not Assad would use chemical weapons against the rebels, Gazeta.ru, a very liberal online newspaper, led with a story about hundreds of Chechen fighters taking up arms in Syria.
On the whole, though, Russians—both the press, and their audience—just don’t seem to have much appetite for the story. Unless Assad falls, it’s unlikely to make it onto any front pages or to lead the nightly news. It is just one more shadowy battle between the world powers and their competing interests, and, much like in the United States, there is plenty to worry about at home: political instability, corruption, flash floods and official incompetence, and, perhaps, a looming economic crisis. A poll done this spring by the independent Levada Center found that the vast majority of Russians do not support more sanctions against Assad, and even fewer support armed intervention. Asked how they would describe the situation in Syria, most said they saw it either as a civil war or as “terrorists, abetted by the West” fighting a “legitimate government.” But the biggest share of all just didn’t know how to answer.